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Master Of The Horn

Genius, player, teacher, jester—Dizzy Gillespie was all that jazz.
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 1)

In 1935, the Gillespies moved to Philadelphia, where the small-town Southern boy encountered a new scene. Unworldly, he showed up for his first gig with his trumpet in a paper bag (he had never bought a case), which the other musicians thought was too funny. But what Gillespie lacked in sophistication, he made up for in raw talent and dedication. He worked out his ideas on the piano, a technique that helped him to "visualize" the music. He soon found that it helped him to freely substitute chords and harmonies within the original melody. "All the various combinations of notes and chords are right there in front of you," he later reflected about the piano, "like on no other single instrument." The technique also helped him discover how different sounds led naturally, sometimes surprisingly, into others. "I'd take them and play them on my horn, and used to surprise people with new combinations. When I played the trumpet, they couldn't tell if I was coming by land or sea."

Gillespie's habit of getting up and dancing to the music also did nothing to diminish his growing reputation as an eccentric. One day, while Dizzy was fooling around on the piano during a rehearsal, a trumpet player named Fats Palmer looked at his empty trumpet chair and said, "Where's that dizzy cat?" The band cracked up, and the name stuck.

All the same, Palmer harbored an abiding respect for the Diz, who, he said, could take a tune and "run over it like a rabbit running over a hill."

Dizzy soon left for New York in pursuit of the big time, with his characteristic lack of caution: "Nothing seemed too risky to me, since I was already known to be crazy." There he started joining in jam sessions, an important element in the evolution of jazz. He'd play a slew of clubs during the course of a single night--places like George's, the Yeah Man, Smalls and after-hours clubs like Monroe's Uptown House. He'd sit in with the Savoy Sultans, Chick Webb and Claude Hopkins. He was coming along fast.

In 1937, he got his big break. Teddy Hill, leader of a popular big band, used Dizzy on a recording session and then invited him to tour Europe. That Gillespie would be filling the seat of his idol, Roy Eldridge, gave the gig added prestige. Diz leapt at the chance. The tour was a success, and when he got back he had a little cash, a fine wardrobe and no job. The musicians' union in New York tore up his working papers, citing a rule that protected musicians' jobs from "foreigners," which, being from Philadelphia, Dizzy was considered to be. The rising star was obliged to cool his heels for a three-month waiting period.

As happened so often in Gillespie's career, misfortune led to happy coincidence. Reduced to sneaking out of town on gigs, he met his future wife, Lorraine, during a quick trip to Washington, D.C., where she was dancing in a chorus line that toured the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit. The company would start at the Apollo Theater in New York, go to the Standard or the Earle in Philly, move to Baltimore and then on to the Howard in D.C., always working three to five shows a day. It was a schedule that resulted in the TOBA circuit being dubbed "Tough On Black Artists." It was also, however, the mecca of black showbiz.

Lorraine would later reveal that the Diz didn't cut such a dashing figure at the time. Any cigars Dizzy smoked in the early years must have been gifts from friends, "because when I met him he didn't have enough money to smoke a cigarette," she recalls. "It was much later that he began smoking those expensive Cubans."

Nevertheless, the two fell in love and, in 1940, were married. Gillespie would later credit Lorraine's calming influence with keeping him from distractions like drugs, which would cut down so many of his contemporaries in the prime of their careers.

In 1937, Dizzy met another person who would help shape his life: the Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauza. They dug each other immediately. Bauza became a father figure to Gillespie and, because he exposed him to Afro-Cuban music, was a profound influence on his musical philosophy. Bauza would also give the young man a tremendous career boost. After serving his three months in exile, the Diz was back with Teddy Hill. Hill's was one of the house bands at Harlem's premier jazz showcase of the era, the Savoy Ballroom. Work was steady until 1939, when Teddy's band was playing in the Savoy Ballroom Pavillion at the New York World's Fair. The band members were doing a lot of sets, and considered themselves seriously underpaid. They complained to the union and got fired. Dizzy was out of work, but not for long, as Mario Bauza came to the rescue.

Cab Calloway was "The Man" in 1939. His band was booked three years in advance and traveled in private railroad cars and on chartered buses. Bauza, who was playing with Calloway at the time, dug Dizzy so much that one night he gave up his trumpet chair so that his protégé could sit in and Cab could hear what was happening. Cab added Dizzy to his band immediately, and their relationship was solid until the legendary "Spit Ball Incident of 1941."

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